Americans are working longer than ever, whether by choice or necessity. It’s created a problem the workplace has tried to ignore: hearing loss among the millions of boomers still on the job
It’s 2016, which means that the first of the baby boomers turn 70 this year. 2.5 million of them. Having survived to 70, their life expectancy is now 85. That’s just the start. Ten thousand baby boomers will turn sixty-five every single day between 2011 and 2029, according the Pew Research Center, with similarly long life expectancies.
Many of them plan to continue working and many others will be involved in volunteer work. As of today, more than half of boomers are still on the job – that’s about 45 million baby boomers, ranging in age from 51 to 70. The total figure for boomers, according to the Census Bureau is 76 million.
By 2022, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts, nearly one-third of those 65 to 74 will be in the work force.One half of those 65 and over have hearing loss. Two-thirds of those 75 and over have hearing loss.
How is the workplace going to cope with this? So far, by ignoring it.
Very few workplaces offer accommodations for those with hearing loss. For instance, company wide meetings might be held in rooms equipped with hearing loops or with both an ASL interpreter and CART captions. Few businesses provide those accommodations. Audiologist Juliette Sterkens, who is HLAA’s Hearing Loop Advocate, thinks the omission is not deliberate on the part of employers: in an email she wrote that she was “convinced that most are unaware that their employees’ struggle.” Echoing a familiar comment about the invisibility of hearing loss, she added, “they may realize something is not right but they cannot put their finger on it.
For now, it falls on you – the hearing-diminished boomer – to hold your own.
Here are some tips.
*Get hearing aids. Unfortunately, corporate America drops the ball on this one too. Most company insurance plans do not pay for hearing aids, nor does Medicare.
*If you can’t afford hearing aids, try a PSAP. If you’re not sure what a PSAP is, start with this New York Times article: “Just Don’t Call Them Hearing Aids.” At one-tenth the average price of a hearing aid, they are very effective for those with mild to moderate hearing loss. Only 20% of those who could benefit from hearing aids use them. That number holds firm well into old age. Hearing aids work. So do PSAP’s. For most employees, either of these devices can correct hearing to nearly normal.
*If you are still having trouble despite hearing aids, tell your supervisor and your colleagues. And then tell them again and again. Hearing loss is invisible, and they’ll quickly forget they need to look at you when they talk, refrain from yelling on the phone, not expect you to hear them from across the room.
*Make sure your hearing aids have telecoils. By law all landline telephones must be hearing-aid compatible, which means that the inner workings won’t cause your hearing aid to buzz. If you flip to telecoil mode when making or receiving a call the reception will be far clearer. And if you happen to work in one of those rare places where meeting rooms are looped, you’ll be able to hear as clearly from the back row as you would from the front.
*If necessary, ask for accommodations. The easiest and most effective of these is a captioned telephone. A captioned phone won’t work for a trader on the floor of the stock exchange – the captions are too slow – but it will help a majority of those with hearing loss to follow a business conversation.
*If you work at an information counter or a cash register, or anyplace where you regularly interact with people, ask for a portable hearing loop. These are usually thought of as accommodations for customers with hearing loss, but they are equally effective for an employee with a loss.
*Use personal assistive-listening devices. If you need to regularly hear one or more speakers – at a daily meeting for instance, look into FM systems or Phonak’s Roger system. The FM systems work best for one on one conversations, but the Roger can be used with several microphones around a table, allowing you to hear all the speakers.
*If you feel you are being discriminated against because of your hearing loss, keep a record of incidents. These can turn out to be invaluable in retaining your job, or in getting a decent settlement if you are told you’re no longer needed.
*Check out HLAA’s Employment Toolkit, which offers a wealth of information.
No company will tell you they’re firing you because you can’t hear, but there are plenty of pretexts – the job is being eliminated, you’re “not a team player,” etc. – and you may be able to expose them for just that if you have kept a written record.
No one wants to get into a lawsuit, and the big guys usually win. So optimize your workplace experience, and keep your job.